The European Union is ready to launch a humanitarian mission in Libya's Misrata within several days, but only if it has backing from the United Nations, officials said Friday.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has contacted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to share her concerns over Misrata, one official said. The mission might require military backing, but it would not go beyond strictly providing assistance for humanitarian action.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said late Friday any military involvement would only come if backed by the U.N.
Anti-government fighters battled forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in fierce clashes Friday in the only major rebel-held city in western Libya as international relief efforts were stepped up for civilians caught in the crossfire.
A U.N. official said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs can request the use of military assets from EUFOR to deliver humanitarian assistance if all civilian alternatives to getting humanitarian aid to a specific location have been exhausted. The official was not authorized to speak publicly.
Two different EU officials said the EU would be ready to act to bring humanitarian relief to the stricken city and insisted a lot of preparatory work had already been done.
Even if they refused to put a day on any action until OCHA had made a request, one said that the EU action would be up to speed "fast enough to make a difference." It would mean a span over several days, not weeks.
"If we have to speed it up, we will. This is a process in the making," another official said.
The issue will also top the agenda when the EU foreign affairs ministers meet in Luxembourg on Tuesday.
While the eastern half of Libya fell quickly under rebel control, Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of the capital Tripoli, was one of two western cities that rose up early in the revolt against Gadhafi. His elite forces besieged Misrata for weeks, cutting off food and water supplies and power lines, but the rebels have stood their ground.
The EU remained very cagey about military involvement in any operation on the ground, insisting everything would depend on the request from OCHA.